Miss me?

Warning: this chapter contains mentions of mating. Nothing explicit, but it happens.

For the twelfth morning in a row, Darkshadow awoke to discover Windlegs pressed close against his side. She had adopted a position of sleeping on her side with her stomach pressed against him and her nose buried in his chest fur. He had taken to sleeping with his paws curled under him and his head laid across her neck. There was certainly no more sneaking about for either of them since one could not move without alerting the other. But neither wanted to sneak out anymore, anyway. Each day, Darkshadow was able to wake to the sight of his beloved curled close to him.

His movement roused Windlegs and she stretched her legs before opening her eyes to look up into his. Darkshadow felt his heart swell with a level of affection that could only be called love. He recalled having feelings for others; Hope stood out prominently in his mind and he believed he'd possessed some stirrings for Ghost. But still, neither of them had stoked in him the amount of emotion he felt when he thought of Windlegs. Everything about her felt right and he struggled to keep from smiling like an idiot whenever she was around.

"I think we need to get up," Windlegs said in a sleep-roughened voice that sent Darkshadow's fur tingling. He was so breathless, he couldn't answer. Windlegs laughed softly and said, "We're on the dawn patrol, love. We wouldn't want to be late."

"On the contrary," Darkshadow said, reluctantly standing as she prodded him, "I would be more than happy to be late. In fact, I want to not show up at all. The unfortunate truth is: we shouldn't be late unless we want to be skinned. And I have no desire for that."

"Yeah. I can see you've probably had enough of it," Windlegs said, regarding the bare patches on each of his shoulders. She stood, stretched again, gave a mighty yawn, and shook the last of the cobwebs of sleep from her body. It was as though she'd undergone a miraculous transformation. Her eyes were wide and bright and her fur bristled in readiness for the day.

The two warriors silently crept out of the den, careful not to awaken their fellow clan members since that too might result in a skinning that neither of them were inclined toward. The sun was just beginning to extend its rays and pull itself over the horizon. The night guards walked past Darkshadow and Windlegs on their way to the warriors' den, yawning a sleepy greeting to them.

Tawnypelt and Mousepaw were the only others on the patrol. The small apprentice looked very tired and kept trying to lean against his mentor for support, but Tawnypelt just kept pushing him upright.

"Come on, snap out of it. You're being almost as lazy as Wildpaw," the tortoiseshell she-cat said, nudging Mousepaw upright again.

"I'm not being lazy, I'm just resting my eyes until Darkshadow and Windlegs get here. That way, on the patrol, I'll be able to see better because my eyes won't be tired from the strain of looking at nothing," Mousepaw replied, falling against Tawnypelt's leg again only to be pushed upright so roughly that he almost fell over.

"A noble idea but you can quit resting now. They're here," the mentor said.

"Oh," Mousepaw said, sounding disappointed. At a look from Tawnypelt, he added in a more chipper voice, "Fantastic! Now we can get to patrolling."

"Yes. And after that you can go back to sleep," Windlegs said as she and Darkshadow approached.

"Oh no he can't. We've got plenty of work to do today. He's already been set back thanks to that damned storm," Tawnypelt said.

"Mercy, Tawnypelt, mercy!" Mousepaw begged dramatically.

Tawnypelt rolled her eyes. "It's always the same with him. He thinks himself so clever but he turns into a giant kit if he has to get up early," she grumbled.

"Not unlike his mentor," Darkshadow joked. It earned him a scathing look from the eldest she-cat and he hastily added, "Or so I'm told." He was silently glad that Tawnypelt had refused to mentor him. She was an absolute general. The other apprentices had the day off, but Mousepaw almost never shared the holiday.

"Let's go, already," Windlegs chuckled and the patrol set off.

Darkshadow found it rather hard to concentrate during the entire march. Windlegs usually didn't distract him this much, no matter how love-struck he was. Mousepaw also seemed to be having some trouble. He kept glancing back at Windlegs, then shaking his head and facing forward again as though trying to dispel an annoying bug. Every time the small tom looked toward Windlegs or seemed to be getting closer to her, a fierce pang of jealousy and possessiveness overcame Darkshadow. His claws would extend slightly and his lip would curl up in a barely-contained growl. Mousepaw would quickly submit and continue on until he again became distracted. They stopped for a short rest and Darkshadow barely resisted the urge to claw poor Mousepaw's ears when the apprentice crept close enough to Windlegs to sniff her pelt. She batted him away, however, and saved Darkshadow from having to wrestle down primal urges.

Creator, just let the patrol end already! Darkshadow thought desperately.

His prayer went unanswered. It felt like an eternity before they finally trekked back to camp. By this point, Mousepaw was wide awake and more than willing to go with Tawnypelt –and get away from Darkshadow and Windlegs.

"Are you alright, Darkshadow?" Windlegs asked when apprentice and mentor had gone.

"Yes, fine," Darkshadow said quickly, struggling to maintain control of himself as the clan bustled around him. Come now, get a hold of yourself and stop being foolish, Darkshadow berated himself. Oh, Creator, she smells fantastic! Stop!

"Are you sure you're alright?" Windlegs asked, lowering her voice. She stepped closer to Darkshadow and pressed her shoulder to his, rubbing her head against his chest and purring. She walked a circuit around his body and flicked his nose with her tail as she went by. "I would be glad to tend to you if you needed it."

Darkshadow's heart raced and his paws tingled. Although he was staring right at her, it took several seconds for him to realize Windlegs was walking out of camp.

"Hey, Darkshadow. What–"

"Later," the tabby said, cutting off Mudriver's question before sliding after Windlegs.

Mudriver looked at Thundertail in confusion. Then a scent reached his nose that caused him to stiffen slightly. Thundertail smelled it as well, although she didn't have the same reaction.

"Ah, so that's it. Come on, brother, we'll see them later," the black warrior said, nudging her brother into motion in the opposite direction their friends had gone.

~X~

Though Darkshadow knew he could probably overtake Windlegs if he sped up, he patiently walked behind her, following her scent trail. His slow start had allowed her to get far enough ahead of him to disappear, but he knew that if he followed long enough, he would find her. For the better part of an hour, he scented his way through a winding trail going deeper into the territory.

At last, he reached the end of the trail. Windlegs was rolling in a familiar patch of yellow-green grass. Occasionally, she would stop, lick her shoulder or flank, and then roll once more. Darkshadow's eyes darkened and his heart thundered. As though she heard, Windlegs's ears flicked toward him. She glanced his way, hissed, and went back to grooming herself.

Darkshadow crossed the grass toward her, moving slowly. She stopped grooming and hissed again. When he continued to approach, she stood, arched her back, fluffed out her tail and the fur on her spine, and growled warningly, extending her claws. Darkshadow angled his approach to circle around her, but she refused to show him her back. He didn't give up and continued to circle, slowly spiraling inward.

Despite her instinctive warnings and hostile behavior, Darkshadow could see in Windlegs's eyes that she wouldn't hurt him…too much. When he was close enough, he feigned that he would continue his counter-clockwise path, but instead rushed Windlegs's right side which she wasn't guarding as much and pounced.

~X~

It was almost another hour before Windlegs had settled down enough to allow Darkshadow near her again. He stayed near the edge of the clearing in the shadows as she groomed herself thoroughly. When she stopped turning to him to glare and growl every few minutes, he decided to try approaching. She was on edge at first, but he remained low to the ground and submissive so as not to spark any outburst and eventually he was able to lay by her side without having to worry about her taking another swipe at him. Though it was unnecessary, he began grooming her shiny white coat.

"I didn't hurt you, did I?" Windlegs asked after a few more minutes.

Darkshadow paused for a moment before bursting into a peel of laughter. "That would be the first thing you have to say!" he said, laughing again.

Windlegs shrugged. "Are you going to answer my question?"

"Yes, I will answer your question. The answer is: No, you didn't hurt me. I'm fine. Better than fine, actually. And you?"

"Perfect," Windlegs said.

"Good. Although," Darkshadow said, "that was quite a blow you gave my ear. Aren't they torn up enough, or did you just think I would look better with them gone completely?" He smiled so she would know he was joking.

Windlegs smiled back and gave Darkshadow's right ear a playful smack. "Gone completely. You can hardly call those ears anymore."

Darkshadow snorted in mock indignation, "My ears are perfectly good, thank you! Besides, they give me character."

"Yes, well, let's hope our kits don't inherit so much of your character that they get your talent for self-destruction. I'm not sure I could bear to see more of those I love torn to bits, even if the scars don't mar their good looks."

"Good looks?" Darkshadow asked with a smirk.

"Well of course." Windlegs licked her right paw. "Hopefully they will inherit my glorious features and that will outweigh whatever you might contribute."

Darkshadow laughed, then placed a paw on her stomach, smiling broadly. He had no way of knowing if they would, in fact, have any kits yet, but the idea that she could someday carry their children filled him with too much pleasure for him to keep a lid on it.

They remained silent, then, just enjoying each other's company. Windlegs busied herself grooming Darkshadow and he purred under her ministrations. When the grooming was done, Windlegs rolled onto her back and looked up at the sky beyond the grass and tree branches.

"Can I ask you a question?" Darkshadow said, hesitant to break the silence.

"What?" Windlegs turned her head to look at him.

"I was wondering, should we have a kit–"

"When we have kits," Windlegs corrected.

"Right. When we have kits, do you think, perhaps, I could take them to see the territory in spring, even if they aren't apprentice-age, yet? I think it would be nice to experience it for the first time with them. With you as well. As a family." Darkshadow looked at the ground, slightly embarrassed.

Windlegs rolled onto her side and stared at him in shock. "You've never seen ShadowClan in spring or summer, have you?"

Darkshadow shook his head. "I spent my first summer here in the nursery. I was banished just before spring and spent both spring and summer away from here."

Windlegs was stunned into silence for a moment. "That's terrible," she whispered. "ShadowClan in beautiful in spring and wonderfully cool in summer thanks to the shade. You can smell the sweet scent of grass all the time and prey is abundant, I think moreso than in the other territories, although I can't be sure. And the sky," she looked up again, "you can always see it. In the forest, the trees grow thick with leaves and block it out, but not here. Here, you need only look up and it's right there, but the grass and bushes keep you sheltered from the harshness of the sun."

"It sounds fantastic," Darkshadow said, imagining the picture Windlegs painted. He thought back to the time he spent in the mountains. Windlegs would have loved it there. The sky was so close, Darkshadow felt like he could hop right into the clouds. He refrained from telling her this, however. He didn't want to drag up the past when everything was so perfect right here.

'Oh, merciful Creator, spare me this disgusting scene!'

Darkshadow cringed. Please, not now! Since he had gotten with Windlegs, he hadn't experienced any nightmares or heard a sound from Darkstripe. He was beginning to think he'd finally been cured by the miracle that was the beautiful she-cat beside him. He'd been wrong.

'Honestly, if you have to get it on, then fine, I can handle sitting in on that. We're animals with a animal's needs. I can leave you to it. But this sappy, mushy, glop? That's cruel and unusual punishment and I won't stand for it.'

'Be quiet, would you! Go away!' Darkshadow begged. If Darkstripe was still inside of him, he could deal with it, he had for moons. But why did Darkstripe have to reappear at such a wonderful time?

'Why? So you can be alone to ruin more lives?' Darkstripe snapped.

'What are you talking about? I haven't ruined anyone's life…recently. I haven't done anything.'

'Oh, gosh, what's the word I'm looking for? Hm…Oh yeah! Bullshit! Haven't done anything? I'd say you just did something pretty major.'

'Hey, you don't have to watch. Besides, I don't mind ruining your life. After all, you've done a number on mine. Seems like fair pay-back.'

'As horrifying as the sight of you getting some is, it's not my life I was talking about. At least Windlegs is nice to look at. No, I'm talking about the new life, or lives, you're planning on creating with her.'

Darkshadow was confused. 'Kits? What do kits have to do with this?' He could feel Darkstripe's impatience.

'Do me a favor, princess, and use this nifty brain of yours for once in your miserable life. Everyone in the clan now knows that you've laid claim to Little Miss Perfect over there, yes? Of course. So if she winds up knocked up, it's gonna be pretty obvious who did the deed unlike in the case of free-rolling Cara.'

'Well, yeah, I would expect so. So what?'

Darkstripe rolled his eyes. 'Oh my Creator, you're kidding me, right? How do you think the clan will feel about having your kits running around? They didn't even want one of you. Do you really think they want two or three or four and so on?'

'Things are different now. And they'll have changed even more by the time the kits are born. Besides, they're Windlegs's kits too,' Darkshadow said.

'Uh, newsflash: they still think you're a murderer! They always will. Nothing you do will change that and when you have kits, those kits will be marked. It doesn't matter if Windlegs is their mother; no one in the clan will dare to turn their back on them for fear that they'll be just like you,' Darkstripe finished in a hiss.

Darkshadow felt his pulse speed up just slightly. He tried to convince himself that Darkstripe was lying. He was bored from being locked up and decided to get back at Darkshadow by playing with his mind. But the fear didn't go away. Could Darkstripe be right? Would his children forever be marked as the spawn of a murderer? He had been. But no, Windlegs would never let the kits become that. She would raise them in love and would always take care of them. But what if it was hereditary? Darkshadow had learned a lot in his time gone, including that a cat's temperament depended just as much on genetics as upbringing. Could his murderous tendencies be passed on to his children just as they had from his father? And even if it wasn't, would he be condemning good, kind cats to be forever considered social outcasts simply because of the sins of the father? Could he trust ShadowClan and the rest of the forest to look past heritage? His experience told him no. Darkshadow stood abruptly, confusing Windlegs.

"What is it?" Windlegs asked.

"I…I have to go…hunting," Darkshadow said. He needed time. Time alone to think and calm down.

"Now?"

"Yes, now. Definitely now." Darkshadow knew he was speaking too fast and wasn't making sense but he couldn't bring himself to share his thoughts with Windlegs. At least not yet.

"I'll go with you." Windlegs stood.

"No!" Darkshadow lowered his voice. "I mean, no. I want to be alone. Just for a little while. I need to think." Hurt, confusion, concern crossed Windlegs's face and Darkshadow licked her forehead, not wanting to see her pretty face distressed. "I'll explain later, I swear. Just, right now, I have to think, ok? I'll see you tonight and you can drag it out of me if you have to." This didn't seem to reassure her so Darkshadow licked her face again. "I love you." Before she could protest, he dashed into the forest.

A run. That was all he needed. Just a run to clear his head. His words to Windlegs came back to him. Hunting didn't sound like a bad idea. And he'd have to come back to camp with something to avoid arousing suspicion anyway. Without slowing down, he closed his eyes and began scanning the forest. The life signature of a rabbit in the bushes not far to his right showed up. Opening his eyes, he changed direction and charged toward the hiding place. But, in his haste, he snapped a twig. The rabbit became alert instantly and took off.

Frustrated and excited at the prospect of a good chase, Darkshadow raced after it. He was careful to avoid making any more noise. However, his care cost him speed and the rabbit remained ahead of him, but only barely. It seemed the poor creature didn't have a den nearby because it continued to run for quite a while, dashing this way and that without disappearing.

Darkshadow was so focused on his chase, that he stopped paying attention to his surroundings. Becoming more frustrated with every pawstep, he began crashing through the underbrush without paying any attention to where he was going. He finally began to gain on the rabbit and put on a burst of speed. Concentrating all his power in his legs, he lept into the air and landed on his target, intent on a killing blow.

A split second before Darkshadow landed, the rabbit had been prepared to make a hairpin turn. As a result, Darkshadow's bite was off and did not snap the rabbit's neck, although it was mortally wounded.

The most bone-chilling noise Darkshadow had ever heard erupted from the wounded rabbit. He'd heard of the death noise injured rabbits made, but had never heard it himself. It felt like his ears were being ripped open and filled with thorns. He wanted to end the noise, but felt frozen. On the verge of being driven mad by the terrible screech, Darkshadow tore himself from his stupor and snapped the rabbit's neck. The noise stopped immediately and the air became eerily silent and still. Darkshadow wouldn't have been surprised if all prey animals in the forest had gone into hiding. That was a powerful weapon the rabbit possessed.

Darkshadow stared down at the rabbit for a moment, then looked around to see where he was. The world had looked alien after the cry. Darkshadow's wits were returning but the land still looked strange. A chill went up Darkshadow's spine when he realized he didn't recognize this territory at all. He closed his eyes and sniffed. There was no scent of ShadowClan anywhere, but there was another scent.

He opened his eyes and whipped his head around. He must have crossed the border a while back, not paying attention due to the chase. He cursed himself for his stupidity. He wasn't in the rogue territories anymore; he had to be mindful of boundaries. No wonder the rabbit had run here; this was where the main rabbit population resided. He scooped up his prey and prepared to sneak back into ShadowClan territory.

A heavy weight suddenly pinned Darkshadow to the ground. The scent of a WindClan warrior overpowered his nose.

"What do you think you're doing here, ShadowClan?" hissed the warrior on Darkshadow's back.

"Hunting!" shouted another upon seeing the rabbit in Darkshadow's mouth.

The rest of the patrol roared in anger.

Darkshadow spat the rabbit out. "I'm sorry. I was hunting and lost track of where I was. Keep the rabbit. I'll return to my territory immediately," he said.

"It's the rogue bastard!" screeched a she-cat. Darkshadow recognized her as Runningtail.

"Blackstar's sending in his pet monsters to invade us again, hm? Does he think WindClan is weak now? How'd he find out?!" growled the warrior still pinning Darkshadow.

"Find what out? I'm not invading anything. It was an accident," Darkshadow insisted.

"I say we take him back to camp," said a small apprentice.

"Good idea," said Runningtail.

Darkshadow finally moved, surprising the warrior on top of him. He knocked the tom off and stood up. "I'm afraid I can't stay," he said, baring his fangs. "I'm sorry about the rabbit. I'll leave it here, now let me go."

"I don't think so," the female warrior said. The WindClan patrol moved to surround Darkshadow.

"It wasn't a request." Darkshadow shot in the direction of the ShadowClan border. The WindClan cats were upon him in an instant.

There were a total of four cats in the patrol. Runningtail, the tom that had pinned Darkshadow, a she-cat and her apprentice. Darkshadow should have been able to hold his own at least well enough to get free and run to the border. He had no doubt in his mind that he could have outrun even these long-legged cats. But he didn't want to hurt the warriors or the apprentice, and so he held back. But the warriors had no problem hurting him. This put him at a severe disadvantage and he was eventually overpowered.

"Surrender or we'll kill you now," growled the tom.

"I say we kill him anyway," Runningtail mumbled.

"No. Surrender and let us take you to camp for the leader to deal with you, or die. Your choice," the tom said.

"Alright, I'll go with you," Darkshadow relented. He was injured now. Even if he could run, he might not be able to outrun them. Tallstar was a fair cat. Surely he would understand that this was a simple misunderstanding and let him go.

The tom cautiously released Darkshadow. Darkshadow stood, but made no attempt to run so the tom took the lead and the rest of the patrol boxed the silver tabby in and they made their way to the WindClan camp.

As soon as they entered the camp, Darkshadow could hear whispers circulate among the warriors. An angry yowl rang out from one of the dens. Darkshadow assumed it was the leader's den and lowered his head as he awaited Tallstar. However, he was in for a surprise when, instead of a black and white tom, a brown tabby stormed into the bright sunlight. The WindClan warriors hung back in respect.

"Onestar," said the large tom leading the patrol, "we discovered this ShadowClan warrior hunting in our territory during our patrol."

"He attacked us!" piped in the apprentice.

"I only attacked because you wouldn't let me go. Look, I don't have time for this. I apologize for my mistake. It won't happen again. Where's Tallstar?" Darkshadow said, hoping the elder tom would be sensible enough to understand the innocent mistake.

"As if you don't know," the brown tabby said, bristling.

"Know what?" Darkshadow was getting tired of this game.

"Tallstar's dead so Blackstar thinks he can take advantage of our new leader. Well, he's wrong. Onestar is a strong leader. ShadowClan will never push us around again," Runningtail hissed.

"Dead?" Darkshadow said.

"Yes. Now, what I'd like to know is how Blackstar found out. Has he been sending in spies?" Onestar demanded.

Darkshadow hadn't even known Onewhisker was deputy. He rarely paid attention during gatherings. Aside from the leaders and a few warriors and apprentices, Darkshadow couldn't really name any cat in the clans, especially not deputies. He racked his brain for the announcement, as he was certain Onewhisker hadn't been deputy before he left, but he couldn't come up with it. It must have happened while he was away, not that it mattered anymore. Onewhisker wasn't the deputy now; he was Onestar, the leader. But how had that happened? He could remember seeing Tallstar at the last gathering. The old tom had looked to be in perfect health, just as strong as any young warrior if not moreso. Darkshadow couldn't say he'd miss the old leader –they'd never met– but he would have to deal with Onestar now and he certainly wasn't fond of that idea.

"Stop flattering yourself. Blackstar has no interest in spying on WindClan or any clan and we had no idea of your leader's death. Hell, I didn't even know you were the deputy. I got sidetracked while I was hunting, that's all."

Onestar snorted. "A likely story."

If Darkshadow hadn't been injured and surrounded, he would have liked to claw the other tabby's ears off.

Onestar flicked his ear. "Lock our guest here up. We'll see what his leader has to say about him at the next gathering."

"What?!" Darkshadow shouted. "That's completely unreasonable!" Onestar glared at him. Calm yourself, Darkshadow, he told himself. You may not like him, but he's a leader, and a new one at that. Treat him with respect he wants even if he doesn't deserve it. Darkshadow dipped his head and lowered his voice. "What I mean is: why don't you just take me back to my camp and speak to Blackstar now?"

Onestar smirked as though Darkshadow's words amused him. "If what you say is true and Blackstar doesn't know of our change in leadership, then he can wait like all the other leaders to find out. I'd hate to ruin the surprise. Lock him up."

Before Darkshadow could protest, he was being shoved to the back of the camp. The WindClan members stared at him as he went past. A few sneered or hissed at him, but he didn't say or do anything in return. He heard Onestar announce a clan meeting.

Not far outside of the WindClan camp, there was a large rocky formation that looked to Darkshadow like a miniature High Stones. The large tom from the patrol led him to the mouth of the rocky cave. It was pitch black inside and, hard as Darkshadow tried, he couldn't see where the chamber ended.

"Get in," ordered the patrol tom.

Darkshadow closed his eyes and was about to use his gift to try and detect what was in the chamber, but he received a hard shove from behind and his eyes flew open as he stumbled down a rocky slope. It was so steep that it was all Darkshadow could do to keep his footing and not roll to the bottom. His paws finally hit a level surface and he skidded to a stop. He turned around and could just make out the silhouette of the tom.

"Enjoy your stay." The stone magnified the sound and it sounded to Darkshadow as if the sentence had been shouted in his ears by dozens of cats.

Darkshadow looked around himself. He couldn't see a thing. The air felt heavy and damp. He shivered, missing the sun already. Even ShadowClan territory wasn't this cold. He closed his eyes and sniffed. There wasn't much to see. A few insects had a home down here, safe from predators. Some form of moss was growing on the walls of the chamber which gave him an idea of its size. It was quite vast down here. The room was larger than any den Darkshadow had ever been in, which surprised him slightly. Did WindClan ever have enough prisoners to fill this place at one time? Darkshadow had a hard time believing WindClan ever had prisoners so he went with his second guess that this was a convenient prison and it happened to be this large naturally. And, finally, Darkshadow could see the life signature of the tom back at the mouth of the cave. Apparently, he had a guard. One tom wouldn't be enough to stop him, normally. Already the aches from his wounds were fading and all bleeding had stopped. But, he calculated that, if he ran straight up that slope, he'd be too tired to fight properly just long enough to give his guard the upper paw.

'On the bright side, your wounds are mild enough that they probably won't get infected. You might live through this, pal! Aside from, you know, the damp air giving you pneumonia. Maybe that's the plan. Ooh, these WindClan cats are smarter than I gave them credit for,' Darkstripe said.

'Shut up,' Darkshadow hissed. 'It's your fault I'm in this mess.'

'My fault? How is this my fault? I mean, I don't mind taking the fall for this because it's hilarious, but how did I earn such an honor?'

'You had to go and be negative and ruin my nice day. Why can't you ever just leave me alone?'

'I was just telling you the truth. It's not my fault you don't like hearing it. And at no point did I say, "Hey, why don't you ditch your girlfriend and cross into the territory of the asshole clan?" If anything, you brought this on yourself.'

'I didn't mean to cross the border!' Darkshadow shouted. How had one stupid mistake escalated into this?

'That's not what I meant, prima donna. You just up and ditched Windlegs after the first time you two had sex! Even I know you shouldn't do that!'

'So, what, you think she's mad at me?'

'Classy she-cat like Windlegs? Nah, I don't think she has any reason to be mad. I think she should be fucking pissed!'

Crap, Darkshadow thought privately. 'Well, why are you so concerned?'

'I'm not concerned. I'm just pissed that you got us in this clusterfuck because I wanted to see the fireworks when you went back to her. Now, she'll probably be so concerned about you that she'll forgive you or some sappy shit like that.'

'This is all your fault,' Darkshadow growled.

'Blame me if that makes you feel better, princess, but this is your mess so you're gonna have to clean it. I suggest you come to terms with that.'

'Leave me alone.'

'You sure you want me to do that? You're gonna be down here for a while and I don't think soldier boy up there is going to be a very good conversational companion.'

"Fuck off!" Darkshadow snapped. His voice echoed around the chamber and up the slope.

"Bet you'd like that, wouldn't you?" the guard called back.

Darkstripe was silent for several moments. Just when Darkshadow began to believe he'd done as he was told, he spoke. 'Alright. You want me to leave that bad? Ok. I know when I'm not wanted. I'll go, but you'll miss me. When the quiet starts to get to you and you start hallucinating your precious clanmates just to keep you company, you'll want me back. But I won't come. I'm done with you. You'll see.'

Darkshadow snorted. 'Bullshit. You'll come whining back eventually. You've told me you'd leave before and you never do. You've got nowhere to go. You'll be just as lonely as me.'

Darkstripe didn't reply. Darkshadow didn't hear another sound from him for the rest of the day. He couldn't even sense his lurking presence in the back of his mind.

"He'll be back," Darkshadow muttered to himself.

~X~

Windlegs walked into ShadowClan camp alone. For some reason, she felt awkward when her clanmates turned to look at her. Surely they had all seen her leave with Darkshadow, and now she was returning alone. She'd considered going out to find him, but he'd said he wanted to be alone and promised to explain later. All she had to do was wait. Darkshadow functioned differently than any other cat she knew. She'd have to make allowances for his peculiar behavior if they were going to be together. And besides, he was trustworthy…most of the time. Windlegs shook her head, resolving not to over think it.

Thicketclaw suddenly came bounding over. For once, Windlegs really didn't want to speak with her, but she couldn't just snub her best friend. But she didn't want to tell Thicketclaw what happened, either. The brown she-cat already didn't like Darkshadow. She wouldn't understand. Windlegs didn't fully understand. The white warrior decided to just act like everything was normal.

"What's wrong?" Thicketclaw asked immediately.

Damn. Speckledthorn really had taught her to be perceptive. "Nothing," Windlegs said unconvincingly.

"Okay. Now tell me the truth. Where's Darkshadow?"

Windlegs shrugged.

"You don't know?"

"He went hunting."

"Without you?"

"He said he wanted to be alone."

"But the way you two left this morning, I thought…" Thicketclaw saw how Windlegs uncomfortably shuffled her paws. "Did you two…?"

Windlegs nodded, refusing to look up at Thicketclaw.

"And then he just left right after?!" Thicketclaw's thick fur bristled, making her size rival Tigerstripe's.

"No. Not right after," Windlegs said.

"Then when did he leave?" Thicketclaw wasn't calming down at all.

"Well, we were just laying together and I brought up kits. And then he got quiet and then said he wanted to go hunting alone." Windlegs realized as she said it just how bad that sounded, especially for Thicketclaw who wanted nothing more in the world than kits.

"Why that good for nothing, perverted–"

"Thicketclaw, it's not like that. He just wanted to be alone. It's not that big a deal."

"No, Windlegs, it is a big deal." Thicketclaw was looking around the camp. Windlegs wasn't sure who she was looking for, but she hoped it wasn't Tigerstripe. Thicketclaw's eyes locked on a cat and she hurried over. Windlegs struggled to follow her. "Thundertail!" Thicketclaw called.

The black she-cat was surprised to have Thicketclaw calling her. They weren't unfriendly, but they hardly spoke. Mudriver joined her in meeting Thicketclaw, but she turned to him. "I think this might be a private thing. Why don't you go…over there for a bit?"

Mudriver looked confused. "Private? What's wrong?"

"Please, Mudriver, just leave us alone for a minute," Thundertail said.

Mudriver relented and walked off, still confused.

"Thanks," Thicketclaw said.

"No problem, but what's the matter?" Thundertail asked.

"Nothing's the matter!" Windlegs insisted.

"Sounds serious," Thundertail said.

Thicketclaw quietly related what Windlegs had told her despite the white she-cat's protests.

Thundertail's ears went back. "The idiot. I'll teach him," she hissed.

"So you'll help me find him?"

"What are we still doing here?"

The two she-cats began to walk to the exit. Windlegs followed them out, then raced ahead of them and blocked their path.

"That's enough! I'm a grown she-cat. If I want to be mad at my mate, I'll be mad at him and I'll argue with him, but I'll do it on my own and on my terms. I don't need you two to go out and handle this for me," Windlegs hissed, hackles raised.

Thicketclaw and Thundertail blinked, looked at each other, then looked back at Windlegs.

"We know," Thicketclaw said.

"Of course you can handle this yourself," Thundertail added.

Windlegs lowered her hackles and tilted her head to the side. "Then what are you doing?"

"As your friends, it's our job to make sure your mate treats you properly. When he does something stupid, we've got to call him out on it. Of course, you'll talk it out with him, but it's our job to let him know that you've got back-up," Thicketclaw said.

"And as Darkshadow's friend, it's also my job to make sure he doesn't fuck up the best thing that's ever happened to him," Thundertail said.

"Oh…So, why didn't you let Mudriver in on this?" Windlegs asked. She wasn't sure when Thundertail and Thicketclaw had worked this system out. Or was it something she was already supposed to know about? She certainly didn't remember being this protective when Thicketclaw was with Speckledthorn. Had she missed something?

The other two she-cat's laughed.

"As much as Mudriver would want to help, he wouldn't be very useful. I'm his sister and you're his friend, so he'd want to be on our side. But he and Darkshadow are best friends. They've had a bromance going since Darkshadow was an apprentice. He was even more depressed than you when Darkshadow was gone. So, of course, he'd also want to defend Darkshadow. He can't play both sides right now, so it wouldn't be very fair to drag him into this," Thundertail explained.

"Besides, I figure you'd want as few cats as possible to know what's going on," Thicketclaw added.

"Oh. Um, thanks," Windlegs said.

Tigerstripe was just returning from his hunting patrol. He saw the three she-cats gathered around by the camp entrance. He set his prey down. "What's going on?" he asked.

"None of your concern. Go put your prey on the pile," Thundertail said.

Tigerstripe scowled. "If my sister's involved, then it is my concern," he snarled.

Thicketclaw suddenly stormed up to him, fur bristling, and said, right to his face, "Well, we're saying this isn't your concern. If Windlegs wants you involved, then she'll tell you, but I didn't hear her give an invitation. Now, pick up that bird of yours and go play with Mudriver or something, but leave us alone."

Tigerstripe had never seen Thicketclaw so riled up and she'd certainly never stood up to him before. He looked to Windlegs, but it was clear she wasn't going to offer any assistance. Finally, he picked up his catch and walked into the camp.

Windlegs smirked as she watched her brother leave with his tail between his legs. She felt a little bad for him. As an apprentice and even a young warrior, he'd been alpha male, so to speak. Now, he was repeatedly getting kicked off his throne without the slightest idea of what went wrong. Yes, they'd all spoiled him too much when he was younger. She returned to the present to find Thicketclaw and Thundertail looking at her expectantly.

"Well," Thicketclaw began, "are you going to let us do our job, now?"

Windlegs stepped aside. "Alright, but don't be too hard on him. Remember, he's different."

"Don't worry, we'll take that into consideration," Thundertail said.

"Yes. Ask Wildpaw, I'm an excellent teacher," Thicketclaw added a little darkly.

The two she-cats disappeared. Good luck, Darkshadow, Windlegs thought as she watched them go.

As soon as Windlegs walked back into the camp, Tigerstripe rushed up to bombard her with questions. She did her best to step around his nagging. She loved her brother and she knew he was just trying to look out for her, but she didn't want to tell him what had happened. There were enough cats hunting her wayward mate at the moment and she didn't need another on a search-and-destroy mission. Finally growing sick of the single-track conversation, Windlegs shook Tigerstripe off and went to join Mudriver for a meal.

"Hey, Windlegs," Mudriver said cheerfully as she laid down next to him with Tigerstripe's sparrow.

Windlegs nodded her greeting and began licking the feathers off the bird's tiny breast.

"Um, don't get mad at me or nothing, but do you know where Darkshadow is?" Mudriver asked.

"I don't," Windlegs replied.

"Okay." Mudriver went back to eating. After they'd finished, they shared tongues while making pleasant conversation. Mudriver never once asked where Thicketclaw and Thundertail had gone or tried to press Windlegs for details on what she and Darkshadow had done that morning.

It was getting late and Thundertail and Thicketclaw still hadn't returned nor had Darkshadow. Windlegs was starting to get a little worried. It seemed Mudriver was picking up on it as well.

"Are you still not going to tell me where my sister went?" the silver tom asked.

As soon as he spoke, Thicketclaw and Thundertail emerged from the brush. There was no one following them and they looked troubled. Windlegs rushed over. Mudriver didn't follow.

"What's wrong?" Windlegs asked hesitantly. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, but she had to.

"We couldn't find him," Thundertail said.

"We searched the whole territory. We tracked his scent as far as the WindClan border, then it was gone. They'd recently marked the trees. We couldn't have smelled farther if we'd tried," Thicketclaw added.

Windlegs felt her heart tighten. She tried to hide her distress, but Thicketclaw had been trained well.

"He's good at hiding his scent, isn't he? And I bet he got better in the rogue territories. If he wanted to be alone as bad as you say, then he probably hid his scent so no one would follow him. He'll be back," Thicketclaw said. Inside, she was boiling. She hadn't trusted Darkshadow to begin with. She'd offered him the benefit of the doubt for Windlegs's sake, but her shaky confidence in him was quickly evaporating. Still, she didn't want to voice her suspicion to Windlegs. She wouldn't rub salt in her friend's wounds. And besides, maybe Darkshadow really would return.

"Don't worry," Thundertail soothed. She glanced at Thicketclaw. The brown warrior had shared her theory with her earlier as they'd searched, but Thundertail didn't believe it. Darkshadow had done bad things in the past, it was true, but he loved Windlegs. He wouldn't lead her on just to abandon her once he'd gotten "what he wanted". He'd wanted Windlegs his entire life, and even if he hadn't, he just wasn't like that. Gone for half a year or not, Thundertail knew Darkshadow as well as Mudriver. Thicketclaw couldn't say the same.

"If he's not back by sundown, we should tell Blackstar," Windlegs said calmly. Her distress had vanished. "Something might have happened to him."

"He's not much of a sleeper. Maybe we should give him until tomorrow," Thicketclaw suggested.

Windlegs shook her head. "Someone else will have noticed he's missing by then. We should at least tell Blackstar early so he'll know from us. If he's not back by tomorrow, then we'll know that something's really wrong and Blackstar can take it from there."

Thundertail and Thicketclaw agreed.

"Can we tell Mudriver? He'll be worried," Thundertail said, noticing Mudriver sitting a few feet away shuffling his paws. He'd certainly noticed Darkshadow's absence by now and he'd connected Thundertail, Thicketclaw, and Windlegs with information on him.

Windlegs nodded. "He has as much right to know as we do."

Thundertail thanked Windlegs and went to her brother.

With the black she-cat gone, Windlegs's bravado deflated a little. Thicketclaw walked up to her and pressed her nose to Windlegs's shoulder. "It's probably nothing," she whispered. "He probably just got distracted and didn't realize how late it was getting. He'll be back before you know it and we'll all ream him out. It'll be fun."

"I'm worried," Windlegs said quietly. "Something inside me is telling me something's wrong."

Thicketclaw affectionately licked her friend's ears. She didn't know what to say or do. Speckledthorn had once told her that silence could be more comforting than soothing words, so she said nothing and hoped Windlegs would get the message.

Across the clearing, Stormthoughts and Clawfur were sitting alone, watching the scene. Clawfur was clearly agitated.

"We should tell them," Clawfur said. He paced back and forth a couple of times, then stopped to look at Windlegs and Thicketclaw, then at Mudriver and Thundertail, then paced again. "We should tell them. We could prevent this!"

Keep your voice down, Stormthoughts warned. She was lying down and looked much more relaxed than her brother, but her eyes were as cloudy as her name would suggest and her brows were ever-so-slightly knit together. You know we aren't allowed to interfere.

"Then what's the point?" Clawfur asked in a harsh whisper. "What's the point of knowing? I hate knowing!"

Do you think I like this anymore than you do? Stormthoughts snapped.

Clawfur stopped his pacing and turned to his sister. "I'm sorry. It's just…I hurt. I hurt knowing that we could stop this, but we aren't allowed. I don't understand why we aren't allowed to stop it if we're allowed to know about it. It seems like we would be obligated to do something."

This is bigger than us. We've known for a long time. And, really, I don't think we could stop it even if we tried.

"But shouldn't we at least try? He would want us to try. I can feel it. He's afraid. No one has ever fought for him before. Wouldn't it be only right for him to know that someone tried for him, even if they failed?"

We will wait and see. We don't know everything, brother. There could be something we haven't seen. Maybe you'll get what you want. In the mean time, stop pacing. You look ridiculous, not to mention suspicious.

Clawfur laid down next to his sister, resting his head on his paws miserably. Stormthoughts began to groom the fur between his ears, attempting to sooth his worry lines. It didn't work, but she wasn't surprised.

She was just as tense as he was, but she was better at hiding it. She pitied her brother, slightly. His emotions were made so strong. When he said he hurt, it was true. She could feel it cause him physical pain to lay beside her while the unsuspecting group worried for their friends. A twinge of pain went through her. Clawfur lifted his head and looked at her. The twinge had come from Stormthoughts.

This…is more serious than I thought, Clawfur said. He'd grown better at using their link, though he still preferred speech.

It goes deeper than either of us thought. But it doesn't matter. His love is taken, Stormthoughts replied.

Clawfur licked Stormthoughts's silver cheek. He loves you…too. Just differently.

It doesn't matter, Stormthoughts sighed.

It will always matter. Clawfur nuzzled into his sister's side and watched as Windlegs, Thundertail, Thicketclaw, and Mudriver walked into Blackstar's den.

~X~

Darkshadow watched the moon rise over the mouth of his prison. Various warriors had cycled through to guard him. No one spoke to him and he hadn't heard anything from Darkstripe since their parting. The heavy, damp air became frigid as the outside cooled. The moon shone some light into the cave, but it couldn't quite reach the ShadowClan warrior. The light stopped just a few feet in front of Darkshadow.

"What are you doing here?" the moonlight seemed to ask. "Don't you know you have a mate waiting for you back at your camp? I can see her, you know. She's worried about you."

It felt like a vice was clamping down on Darkshadow's heart. Was Windlegs worried about him? He'd thought about what Darkstripe had said. Leaving had been stupid. Why hadn't he just told Windlegs his worries? They were mates, after all. They were supposed to share things. Why was he keeping things from her? Surely, if she truly loved him, she wouldn't hate him for all the terrible things he'd done while banished. She didn't hate him for the things he'd done before, just been a little upset for a while. Maybe, if he'd been honest with her, he wouldn't have had to kill Mutt. Maybe, if he'd been honest with her, he wouldn't have been banished in the first place. Reviewing his life, Darkshadow saw a lot of opportunities for him to change the outcome of his sorry existence. But he hadn't taken any of them and it was too late to go back. And here he was.

Can you carry a message back to Windlegs for me? Darkshadow asked the moonlight.

"I can try," it replied.

Tell Windlegs I love her. And tell her I'm sorry.

The moon rose higher in the sky. The streak of light receded up the tunnel and disappeared. Darkshadow leaned against the back wall of the cave and stared at nothing.

What have I done?...

Okay, so I found out Onewhisker became the leader after Tallstar and I was as surprised as Darkshadow. For anyone who liked Onewhisker as much as I did, I'm sorry I had to make him such an ass, but it was necessary. The reason I killed Tallstar and made Onewhisker leader was mainly because I thought it would be way too outlandish to have Tallstar behave this way so I manipulated the timeline so I could get a new, young leader that is just getting used to their position and wants to show strength. I wanted to keep the cannon leader, however, and so poor Onestar fell into my character-manipulation trap. Please forgive my constant ravaging of artistic liberty. Reviews keep Darkshadow warm tonight and make him, Windlegs, Thundertail, Mudriver, Thicketclaw, Stormthoughts, and Clawfur happy!